JC in Spring Training: Focus on Communication

Yes, I know the big news at the Twins Spring Training site on Wednesday was the long-awaited debut of Joe Mauer in their game with the Mets, but what is there really to say about that? He hit a line drive up the middle in his first plate appearance off of Mets starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey. In fact, Pelfrey himself might have said all that needs to be said about Mauer’s debut. “I threw a slider in, and he hit a rocker right up the middle,” he was quoted as saying after the game. “He’s obviously Joe Mauer for a reason…” Indeed.

But for those of you who don’t believe what you don’t see, here’s the evidence I captured at the game.

For me, though, I’m a bit of a people watcher and today, I was interested in watching people just talk… communicate.

Not the greatest picture, but it was entertaining to watch... and listen to

One of the more humorous bits of “communication” was the bantering between Manager Ron Gardenhire and the fans surrounding the backstop of the Twins’ practice field during batting practice. Just before the last player (Jim Thome) finished getting his cuts, Gardy himself picked up a bat and stepped in the cage. From that point on, the only “communication” coming from Gardy was the word “ouch!” after each swing.

Not long after I settled in to watch some batting practice on the field where the AA level minor leaguers were getting their swings in, a group of today’s cuts from the Major League camp showed up. Rene Tosoni, Joe Benson and Chris Parmalee were not going to be going north with the Twins and today was the day they got the official word and joined their minor league brethren… and the coaches working with those young players. Among the coaches and instructors on this particular field were former Twins outfielder Tom Brunansky, who’s now a coach in the Twins organization, and Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. I just hope all of these guys know enough to take advantage of the advice available from the guys who the Twins have around this camp.

Chris Parmelee and Paul Molitor have a chat around the cage

Before heading in to Hammond Stadium for the game, I stopped along the “autograph fence” that runs between the Twins practice field and the stadium. This is where players often pause on their way to the stadium after practice to interact with fans. I found two players doing exactly that, pitcher Scott Diamond and Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome. Diamond certainly seemed popular with the young ladies.

Scott Diamond poses for a picture

Jim Thome signing autographs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once inside the stadium, I spotted a few people having conversations that I would have been interested to listen in on… like these:

I couldn't help but wonder what Morneau and Nishioka were talking about during warm ups

Morneau and Jason Bay chatted before the game. Bay, Like Morneau, missed the second half of the 2010 season with a concussion

I'm not sure if Nishioka understood anything 1B coach Jerry White was saying, but he nodded a lot.

Nishioka didn't seem to have any trouble understanding what TC Bear was communicating

After coming out of the game, Alexi Casilla and Nishioka got some running... and talking... in, out along the LF wall

What’s that you say? Wasn’t there an actual game going on today?

Why yes, there was. In fact, the Twins won the game with a walk off hit in the bottom of the ninth inning. After Matt Brown opened the inning with a double to the RCF gap, Danny Lehmann followed up with a hit that drove in Brown and saved his team mates from having to endure the most hated thing among ballplayers… a spring training extra-inning ballgame. Here, below, are a few more of the 250 or so pictures I took today, beginning with a shot of Lehmann’s game winning hit.

Lehmann drives in the winning run in the 9th

Brain Duensing had another effective start

Jim Hoey hit 99 mph with a fastball on the Hammond speed gun while striking out two Mets

Finally, while Johan Santana is still on the shelf, the Twins did reunite for the day with a couple of former team mates. Jason Pridie started in centerfield and Luis Castillo started at second base for the mets.

Jason Pridie

Luis Castillo

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s a wrap for today. I’m not sure whether I’m going to make the trip up to Lakeland for the Tigers game Thursday or stick around Ft. Myers. Media reports are that Carl Pavano, Drew Butera, Matt Capps, and Joe Mauer are going to be playing in a minor league game at the Twins’ complex and Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew is reportedly going to be arriving at the complex Thursday as well.

If you want to read a bit more about my time at the Twins complex, check in periodically with Howard Sinker’s “A Fan’s View from Section 219” over at the StarTribune site. I’ll be sending periodic reports to Howard which he may be posting.

Of course, I’ll be trying to post something daily here at Knuckleballs, as well.

-JC

Gardy’s Bi-lingual!

Who’da thunk it?

We all wondered how long it would take for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire to learn to communicate with the Twins’ most recent import from the other side of the globe. Well, thanks to 1500ESPN radio’s Phil Mackey, we now know that Gardy has learned enough of his new infielder’s native language to communicate a bit… even if the player himself appears to be having a little trouble understanding exactly what his manager is saying.

Oh… you think I’m talking about Gardy knowing enough Japanese to chat with Tsuyoshi Nishioka? Heavens no… I think we’ll be seeing Gardy with his handy-dandy English/Japanese pocket dictionary all summer long.

Luke Hughes (Photo: Brian Henricksen)

But apparently he’s been much quicker to pick up enough Australian to communicate with red-hot rookie infielder Luke Hughes, as evidenced by this quote from Mackey’s post game notes:

“I asked him, ‘Mate, have you ever played shortstop.’ He went, ‘Are you serious?’ And I went, ‘Very serious.’ Then I went, ‘Nevermind the question, just go play short.'”

That’s our Twins manager… Crocodile Gardee!

One other item in Mackey’s post that I really liked to see was his quotes from Kevin Slowey.  You may have heard that Gardenhire has handed out four of the starting rotation spots already and, with one spot remaining, Slowey and Scott Baker are the last two men waiting for the music to stop in this rather bizarre cake walk game.

Slowey’s thrown 10 innings in his past three starts without giving up a run, so you could certainly understand if he was feeling a bit overlooked, and possibly even disrespected, by his manager stringing him along. But here’s Slowey’s response when asked how much he’s sweating out these last couple weeks of Spring Training:

“None, really,” he said. “It’s not really worth sweating it. I think you ask any one of the guys in this clubhouse, we’ll do anything it takes to help this team win. And I think we’ve seen that the last couple years.

“You’ve seen a guy like Jim Thome, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and he doesn’t get 300 at-bats last year. He’s not complaining one bit. He’s talking about how excited he is to be a part of a championship team. I think if a guy like that can be satisfied with just being part of the team, certainly I can do the same.”

Is that a great response, or what? It also goes to show what kind of example Mr. Incredible, Jim Thome, is providing in that clubhouse.

I’m outta here!

This is it… the time has finally come… I head to Ft. Myers tomorrow (Tuesday) morning and while the weather outside isn’t TOO bad here, it’s nowhere near what I’m seeing in the forecast for Ft. Myers for the next seven days. (Wednesday through Tuesday… Highs ranging from 83-84, lows 58-62 and Sunny every day except Wednesday, when I’ll have to deal with partly cloudy skies. I’ll try to cope.)

I’m planning on spending Wednesday morning at both the Major League and minor league practice fields and then catching the Twins and Mets in the afternoon. Media reports are that Joe Mauer may very well making his Spring Training debut as a DH Wednesday and, since the following two games are on the road, I would expect to see pretty much all of the A-list position players in that game.

I am wondering a bit, though, how both Mauer and Thome will be managing to get swings in during the week I’m down there. The Twins have only two home games during the next week, Wednesday’s game with the Mets and Saturday’s with the Rays. The other four games between now and a week from today are road games with the Tigers (Lakeland), Orioles (Sarasota), Blue Jays (Dunedin), and Pirates (Bradenton). It’s hard to imagine either Mauer or Thome rattling across Florida on a bus. With minor league games getting started, maybe they’ll get a few cuts in one or two of those games.

Check in here at Knuckleballs from time to time… I’ll try to post a bit while I’m gone. I’m also going to try to send Howard a report or two that he can post over at “A Fan’s View From Section 219″… something he’s been gracious enough to let me do for several years now.

Finally, let’s sign off by sharing the following excellent Public Service Announcement, shown during Monday’s Twins/Marlins broadcast, from Michael Cuddyer and Tsuyoshi Nishioka (video clip from the Star Tribune):

 

It’s Mardi Gras, Let’s Celebrate!

It’s not like we really need an EXCUSE to party tonight, but we might as well get in the Mardi Gras spirit, right!?

I may not be the biggest party animal in Twinsville, but there are plenty of reasons for Twins fans to be celebrating tonight!

First and foremost, there was the return of Justin Morneau to the playing field. Check out the video of both of Doc’s plate appearances this morning in the ‘B’ game with the Pirates!

This got everyone pretty excited!

It doesn’t take much to get the Twinsville Tweeters’ fingers going (much to Gardy’s chagrin, at times… does anyone else find it just hilarious that he hasn’t quite come to grips with the fact that things he tells reporters no longer take 18 hours before those words become public?) and we certainly had reactions flying across the airwaves today. Here’s just a sampling of today’s revelry:

Justin was all smiles after the game… at least I THINK there’s a smile under that fu manchu somewhere. Check out the pic link:

@Twins_morsecode Photo of the day – #Twins 1B all smiles. Justin Morneau. http://plixi.com/p/82536411

Naturally, Carl “the ‘stache” Pavano, himself, was not easily impressed:

@JoeCStrib Pavano on Morneau: “He shaved into a handlebar moustache. You gotta be feeling really good if you are going to be wearing that around here.”
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Joe Mauer was duly impressed… kind of:

@JoeCStrib Huge crowd was watching Mauer take swings in batting cage. I told him Morneau hit a 3-run 2B. “Did he?” Mauer said. “That’s pretty good.”

OK, so I’m not really sure this falls under the category of “revelry”… but it’s interesting anyway:

@JoeCStrib Blue Jays had 3 scouts watching B-game, one with a video camera. I’m told they like Slowey and have relievers to spare. #stribtwins

Tsuyoshi Nishioka got in to the Mardi Gras spirit:
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@TwinsNow Japanese media said Nishioka was very excited today because, for the first time with the #Twins, he started a double play.
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and…
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@JoeCStrib Nishioka lines an opposite-field single to left and is replaced by a pinch runner. He was 1-for-2 today. #stribtwins
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Ben Revere had his own way of celebrating:
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@PMac21 Ben Revere just made a ridiculous diving catch on the left-field warning track.
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Gardy was in a jovial mood, as well:
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@TomPelissero #Twins manager Ron Gardenhire when asked how Justin Morneau looked in his spring debut: “Canadian. Real Canadian.”
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Of course, Gardy made sure everyone knew Doc wasn’t the only guy making his spring debut today:

@TwinsNow Gardy on DY’s 2 walks today: “Haven’t seen that in a long time, ever maybe. … We thought that was historic.” #Twins
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OK I guess that’s enough celebrating for this old man tonight… and enough of stealing others’ work to fill blogspace here at Knuckleballs.
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So let me leave you with this final Mardi Gras thought… and image.
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Happy Mardi Gras, y’all!
-JC

Smith & Gardy: The New Goose & Maverick?

“I feel the need… the need for SPEED!”

Some of you are probably too young to remember this line from Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards in “Top Gun” (is it really possible that movie is 25 years old?). The two actors portrayed Naval Aviator Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and his backseat RIO, “Goose” (20 bonus Knuckleballs points if you can tell us Goose’s character’s real name without looking it up… I couldn’t) as they piloted their F14A Tomcat from the USS Enterprise (that’s the aircraft carrier, not the starship) to Top Gun training at Miramar Naval Air Station.

Maverick, you see, was one helluva pilot (sorry… naval aviator) and there’s no doubt that if he would just “do it right”, he could be the best.

But Maverick’s personality was such that he had to go faster than anyone else. Goose would try to maintain some level of control and impress on his friend that being smart about things is important, too. In the end, however, he always went along with Maverick’s reckless “winning means doing it faster than anyone else, no matter what” approach. Goose knew better, but dangit, Maverick was such a lovable guy that in the end, all he could do is shake his head and go along for the ride.

The Twins never showed interest in bring back Orlando Hudson and now, with the addition of Japanese infielder Tsuyoshi Nishioka and subsequent trade of JJ Hardy to Baltimore on the last day of MLB’s Winter Meetings, Twins General Manager Bill Smith officially bought in to Manager Ron Gardenhire’s desire to begin bringing the running game back in to the Twins’ offensive game plan.

Does Bill Smith really believe in this change in approach? Did he try to point out to Gardy that his team scored more runs than anyone else in the AL Central Division, even if Target Field proved more difficult than expected to hit a baseball out of?

It doesn’t really matter, of course, whether Smith knows the important thing is to outscore your opponents and win games, because dangit, Gardy is such a lovable guy and you know that, in the end, all Smith can do is shake his head and go get the kind of players Gardy wants.

A year ago… and really all throughout the 2010 season… a lot of us were having some fun drawing comparisons between the Twins and White Sox. Years earlier, Sox manager Ozzie Guillen had given the Twins a cute nickname… the piranhas (or was it “piranyas”?)… that portrayed the Twins as a scrappy group of speedy little guys with limited real athletic ability that consistently beat Ozzie’s more talented teams by nibbling them to death. By 2010, the roles had reversed and Ozzie had apparently convinced Sox GM Kenny Williams that he needed more versatile ballplayers who would battle their tales off, while Bill Smith went out and stocked the Twins with more professional hitters.

The beefed up Twins went something like 99-1 against the Sox team that Ozzie and Kenny had built in the Twins’ former image. As a result, this off-season, I’m not sure Williams has even asked Ozzie what he “wants”. He went out and bought the ultimate power hitter, Adam Dunn, in addition to re-signing Paul Konerko. (Alas, Mark Kotsay’s days DHing for the BitchSox are over… dammit.)

I’m concerned that Gardy got bored last year. Sure, the Twins scored a lot of runs and would almost certainly have scored even more if Justin Morneau hand’t been shelved by a concussion half way through the season. But something just didn’t feel right to Gardy. There were times, no doubt, when his instincts were to steal, bunt, hit & run… all those things the piranhas did… but there wasn’t a piranha in sight. Instead he had Orlando Hudson and Jim Thome and JJ Hardy out there clogging up the basepaths.

So what if the runs still scored (perhaps because the Twins weren’t needlessly giving up outs by bunting and getting caught stealing)? It just wasn’t the kind of baseball team Gardy enjoyed managing. It was like taking Maverick out of his F14A and putting him in a “clunky” B1 bomber. Sure he might eventually inflict more damage on the enemy, but without the speed and maneuverability of his Tomcat, it’s just not as much fun for the guy at the controls.

Look, I get that Target Field isn’t built for marginal power hitters… guys that rely on balls that barely clear fences to generate their HR numbers. But Bill Smith should remember that last season’s strategy of bringing in better offensive players, even if they weren’t the fastest guys in the game, resulted in the Twins winning 94 games.

And before Bill Smith completely buys in to Gardy’s dream of bringing us Piranhas II – The Sequel, he might also keep one more thing in mind…

While “Top Gun” ended with LT Mitchell all smiles, going along with Maverick’s “need for speed” didn’t turn out so well for Goose.

– JC

Gardy And The Gripers

Sometimes Ron Gardenhire drives me nuts with some of the decisions he makes during the course of a game. Then again, I’m sure managers of every MLB team drive some of their fans nuts with that kind of thing.

But what ‘s nuttier are the people loudly clamoring for Ron Gardenhire’s hide because he hasn’t successfully vanquished the Yankees to get to a World Series. That’s just crap.

Ron Gardenhire

Why can’t Gardy get his teams past the Yankees? Hmmmm… gosh… I wonder. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that in exactly NONE of the seasons the Twins lost to the Yankees in the LDS (2004, 05, 09, 10) has the Twins payroll been within even $100 million friggin dollars of the Yankees, could it?

It’s impossible for me to take any Gardy critic seriously if all he/she does is go on about how the Twins need to fire Gardy without telling us who they think would do the job better. Who  WOULD lead this team past those pesky Yankees? The closest most of them ever come to presenting alternatives is when they drone on about how great Tom Kelly was because he won two titles or argue that Ozzie Friggin Guillen would have delivered titles if he had been managing the Twins instead of the White Sox. Are you kidding me?

Tom Kelly

Tom Kelly won two division titles in 16 years! Yes, he won World Series those two seasons, but (a) he never faced a team in the playoffs with a significant talent/payroll advantage, and (b) all he had to do to get to the World Series those two years was win one best-of-five series each year. I like Tom Kelly but comparing his “success” with Gardenhire’s is absurd. And Guillen? Seriously? He’s won exactly two division titles in seven years. Yes, he won one World Series. How did he do against the Yankees, though? Oh… that’s right… he’s never faced the Yankees in the post-season.

But there must be SOMEONE the Twins could replace Gardy with who’s had some success against the Yankees, right? After all, they don’t win the World Series every year!

Maybe we could hire Mike Scioscia away from the Angels! He’s managed to beat the Yankees twice this decade in the post-season (2002, 2005). Sure, he lost to the Yankees a year ago and his post-season record against the Red Sox (1-3) isn’t much to brag about, but if you can get him, go for it. Then again, he’s already working for an organization that’s been spending $100 million on payroll since about 2004, so he might be tough to convince to make the jump to Minnesota.

Likewise, Terry Francona managed to beat the Yankees in the post-season… once. But I think he still has a job with a team that’s been pumping over $100 million in to payroll the entire decade, so I’m not sure your chances of pulling him to Minnesota are even as good as getting Scioscia.

Hmm… managers with the kind of success Twins fans want to have against the Yankees seem to be already managing teams who have been far out-spending the Twins for players this decade. I wonder if that has anything to do with how “smart” those managers are?

But someone else in the AL must have beaten the Yankees in the post-season, right?

Hey, Eric Wedge beat the Yankees with the Indians in 2007 (with an assist from a swarm of bugs) and he’s looking for a gig. Then again, the reason he’s available is that Cleveland dumped his ass two years after he conquered those Yanks. It seems that was the only year Wedge led his team to the playoffs. In fact, his teams won more than half their games exactly twice in his seven years leading the Tribe. Is that the kind of ‘success’ you want? Maybe Gardy should get in touch with the head of the Minnesota Mosquito Union to get some help.

Jim Leyland beat the Yankees in the post-season. Once. But then again, Leyland has won exactly one division title in 19 years of managing. Tiger fans can’t seem to figure out how come Leyland’s teams fall on their collective faces during the second half of what seems like every season. Maybe he could take over in Minnesota and show fans here how that’s done! But hey, at least we wouldn’t be complaining about not being able to beat the Yankees in the post-season any more.

Bobby Valentine is making the rounds, interviewing with pretty much every team looking for a manager. Never mind that in 15 years as a Major League manager, Valentine won exactly… wait for it… ZERO division championships! But hey, he did lead ONE Met team to a World Series as a wild card. Maybe that’s the kind of leadership we need in the Twins clubhouse!

You can talk all you want about Gardy’s puzzling in-game strategy or how he’s too buddy-buddy with the players or how the Yankees are “in his head”. But if you want to know why his Twins teams haven’t been able to get past the Yankees in the playoffs, it’s not hard to figure out. Follow the money.

After starting the 2010 season with a payroll of about $98 million, the Twins added some pieces mid season and broke through that $100 million payroll barrier for the first time in franchise history. With Mauer’s raise to $23 million per season kicking in for 2011, Gardy’s going to be leading a team next season that will have a $100 million+ opening day payroll, including a $20 million player and at least three guys getting better than $10 million each for salaries. Wooooo boy, we’re big time now, right!?

Those Yankees that Gardy’s boys were supposed to beat in the LDS had a $213 million payroll this season. They had four players already bringing down better than $20 million a year. In fact the salaries for just those four players together virtually equaled the Twins entire opening day payroll. They had seven more players pulling down better than $10 million a season. Next year, Cano’s contract moves him in to that $10 million club. There’s also every reason to believe they’ll be adding Cliff Lee or Carl Crawford (or both) to their $20 million-per-year ranks in 2011.

Since 2000, the Yankees are 12-7 in post-season series (if you go back to 1995, it’s 21-9). Yes, four of those series wins this decade have been over the Twins. They’ve also beaten Oakland and Seattle twice each, and the Red Sox, Angels, Mets and Phillies once each. The Angels are the only club who’s managed to win two post-season series from the Yankees in this decade.

Maybe one reason the Yankees have beaten the Twins more than they’ve beaten anyone else in the post-season is because they’ve played the Twins more than they have anyone else. Only the Angels, who’ve had three post-season series with the Yankees, have faced off with the Yankees more than twice since 2000. Only the A’s, Mariners and Red Sox have met them even twice (the Yankees are 5-1 in those match ups).

In the 11 post-seasons since 2000, the Twins have made six post-season appearances, all as division champion and all under Ron Gardenhire. Who can match that?

  • The Red Sox have also been to the post-season six times, the last five under Terry Francona.
  • The Angels have also participated six times, all of them under Mike Scioscia.
  • The Braves have been to the playoffs seven times, all under Bobby Cox.
  • The Cardinals have also made seven post-season appearances, all under Tony LaRussa.
  • The Yankees have appeared in the post-season 10 times, eight under Joe Torre and the last two under Joe Girardi.

What do those teams have in common? Solid, consistent managers and front offices and the ability to afford to put competitive talent on the field almost every year.

Explain to me again why a team who’s gone to the playoffs at least as often as all but three teams in all of baseball in the past 11 years should fire their manager? You’re going to have to do better than pointing out that his teams haven’t managed to defeat a team that has used its inherent financial advantages to dominate virtually every other team in baseball, as well.

Bud Selig, the national media, and the Steinbrenners want you to believe that a system that allows one team to rake in so much more revenue than every other team that they can literally buy any player they want, making them the prohibitive favorite to represent the AL in the World Series every year, is good for baseball. Hell, maybe it is. I’m sure rigging things so that the Yankees are likely to get to the World Series almost every year means more money from FOX, TBS or whoever else might pay MLB for television rights to the playoffs. Anyway, I’m just a dumb Midwestern hick, what do I know about running a multi-billion-dollar cartel?

Just don’t try to tell me it’s fair and that the “right manager” evens the odds. It just makes you sound like an idiot.

I may not be as smart as Bud and his cronies, but I’m smart enough to know that the reason the Twins go in to every series with the Yankees as prohibitive underdogs has virtually nothing to do with their manager and everything to do with the talent levels of the players that those teams can afford to put on the field.

You can’t advance in the playoffs unless you make the playoffs. In the American League, that means you manage in a way to give you the best chance to win your division, then you hope to catch lightning in a bottle to get past the team that MLB and its network partners want to see in the World Series. The deck is going to be stacked against you every year and calling for a manager to be fired because he hasn’t beaten those prohibitive odds in four tries is just silly. – JC

How Did We Get Here? (Part 2)

Earlier, in Part 1 of this essay, we took a trip down Memory Lane back in to last offseason and through spring training and discussed some of the decisions made by Bill Smith and Ron Gardenhire as they constructed the roster that the Twins would start the 2010 season with. Now let’s take a look at how those decisions worked out.

In essence, the Twins started the 2010 season with six starting pitchers that they felt pretty good about, a bullpen that was missing its anchor in Joe Nathan, but was otherwise solid, an improved starting line up and a bench with some speed and one very dangerous bat.

When Orlando Hudson, JJ Hardy and Nick Punto (3/4 of the Opening Day infield) collectively made seven trips to the Disabled List, Alexi Casilla was there to fill in because the Twins decided not to risk losing him to waivers in order to keep Matt Tolbert or Danny Valencia to begin the season. The decision to start the year with Valencia and Tolbert in Rochester and Casilla with the Twins has resulted in all three of them being available to make significant contributions when the starting infielders went down.

Danny Valencia

By the way, it’s just plain mean to say that Nick Punto’s biggest contribution to the Twins success was getting injured and thereby allowing Danny Valencia to take over full time at 3B. Mean… and not altogether accurate. The truth is that Valencia’s ticket back to Rochester had pretty much been bought and paid for when Justin Morneau bumped his head against Blue Jays’ 2B John McDonald’s knee. It was Morneau’s absence and the resulting move of Michael Cuddyer to 1B that kept Valencia in Minnesota.

Of course, it was also Morneau’s injury that made Smith’s signing of Jim Thome all the more important.

Keep in mind, this is the same Jim Thome that mlb.com columnist Hal Brody had written the following about during mid-March:

So, Thome, in the twilight of a career that should land him in the Hall of Fame, will be used mostly as a late-inning pinch-hitter. This is Spring Training, when most everyone oozes with optimism, but the dark side is if Thome’s skills diminish during 2010 he might not finish the year with the Twins.

Or it could be a swan song, his final season.

Jim Thome

In the second half of the season, Thome has hit for a .310 average, with a .450 on-base percentage and a .722 slugging percentage. That’s a 1.172 OPS in 44 games (38 of which he has started as the DH). “Swan song” indeed.

So yes, decisions to sign Hudson and Thome and to keep Casilla to start the season have proved to be huge.

But let’s look at the pitching.

Yes, the Twins have been without the services of Joe Nathan. But they have three pitchers who have racked up over 20 saves each this season (though obviously not all for the Twins). Jon Rauch did well filling in at the back end of the bullpen during the first half of the season. When he started to show some signs of faltering, the Twins traded for Matt Capps. Sure, maybe they overpaid for him, but he’s gotten the job done. Then just for good measure (and to have a shut down arm against lefty hitters), Smith went and got Angels closer Brian Fuentes.

Jesse Crain

So the Twins replaced Nathan with three closers… and yet none of them has been their best relief pitcher this year. That would have to be Jesse Crain (the same Jesse Crain who was rumored to be a non-tender candidate in December), who recovered from a shaky start to the season to become virtually unhittable for the past few months. He’s the guy who has come in to get the critical outs against the opposing team’s toughest hitters before the ninth inning rolls around.

Finally, how huge does that decision NOT to convert Francisco Liriano to a closer look right now? The Twins started the season with six starting pitchers they felt they could rely upon. The two who were battling for the final roster spot, Liriano and Brian Duensing, will pitch games 1 and 3 of the ALDS in October, but the other four haven’t been shabby either.

Those six pitchers, Liriano and Duensing along with Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Carl Pavano, have  started all but three games for the Twins this season and nobody outside of that group has started more than one game. All six have been credited with at least 10 wins this season. (By comparison, in 2009, the Twins used 11 starting pitchers, 8 of them started at least 9 games, and only three of them notched 10 or more wins.)

So, how did the Twins get here…with a Division Championship already under their belts with another week and a half of games to play?

I don’t want to minimize the contributions of the other starting pitchers or of guys like Joe Mauer, Delmon Young, Denard Span and Jason Kubel who have all obviously played significant roles in the Twins’ success and the ironman versatility of Michael Cuddyer shouldn’t be underappreciated.

But in my mind, the decisions to retain Pavano and Crain, add Thome and Hudson, keep Liriano in a starting pitcher role and give Casilla the final roster spot out of Spring Training made the difference between the 2010 Twins once again being borderline contenders and being a team capable of blowing away the AL Central competition.

It’s been a fantastic ride so far… let’s hope the best is yet to come! – JC

How Did We Get Here? (Part 1)

No, I’m not contemplating the origins of the universe and I’m certainly not about to begin a debate over Creationism, Darwinism, or any other “ism” that much deeper thinkers than myself have put forth to explain mankind’s existence.

I just thought now might be a good time to take a look at just how our Twins went about becoming the first team in Major League Baseball to clinch their Division’s championship banner. It feels like this season has just flown by.

It seems like just yesterday that I was earning a March sunburn as I followed the Twins around Florida for a week during Spring Training. At the same time, it also feels like ages since we’ve been able to enjoy the sight of Justin Morneau in the batters box. Still, here we are… 152 games in to a 162-game schedule and the Twins are the AL Central Champions!

When your team has put together a second half like the Twins have, it’s easy to overlook just how difficult winning the AL Central really was. So today, before we get back in to discussions about playoff rotations and whether the Twins should carry 3 utility infielders or 3 catchers on their ALDS roster, let’s pause to glance back at what the Twins have accomplished this season… and how they did it.

In the first part of this post, let’s look at what went on before the 2010 season even got started.

Bill Smith

Let’s start by giving credit to General Manager Bill Smith. While other GMs made the big offseason splashes, Smith quietly laid the groundwork for this season. Shortly after the end of the 2009 season, Smith struck a deal with Milwaukee for shortstop JJ Hardy, in return for Carlos Gomez. The trade was widely viewed as two teams exchanging spare parts, each hoping the player they were getting might bounce back from an off year and fill a need for their new team.

There was speculation that the Twins might not offer arbitration to Carl Pavano, allowing him to become a free agent without the Twins receiving any draft picks as compensation. But Smith offered arbitration to Pavano and the offer was accepted. Still, Smith and the Twins were being loudly criticized by the end of the Winter Meetings in December when none of the Twins’ perceived needs had been addressed.

There was also speculation that the Twins might not have enough money to keep their bullpen depth together. Jesse Crain was considered a possible non-tender candidate. But Smith offered arbitration to all eight of the Twins arbitration-eligible players and signed all of them to deals… including Crain (whew!).

Orlando Hudson

As January came to a close, the Twins finally created a little buzz when it was revealed that the they had interest in Jim Thome, primarily as a late inning pinch hitter and occasional DH. On February 4, the Twins signed Thome to a one-year $1.5 million base contract that would, at best, be considered adequate for a part-time role player. The buzz got a bit louder the next day when the Twins announced they had signed 2B Orlando Hudson to a one-year deal.

With most of the roster set, Smith and the Twins headed to Spring Training with really only one more major issue to spend some time working out… a little matter about a contract extension for their catcher. But only the most pessimistic of Twins fans and media doubted that eventually a deal would get done… and it did.

Joe Nathan

The Twins entered March widely considered the favorites to win the AL Central again in 2010. That consensus lasted just long enough for Joe Nathan to take the mound in his first Spring Training game. On March 6, Nathan was pulled from the game “for precautionary reasons” due to “tightness and achiness” in his right elbow. After giving the injury a couple of weeks to magically repair itself, the Twins announced Nathan would miss the 2010 season and undergo Tommy John surgery. Immediately, the national media experts declared the Twins dead meat without their All Star closer and declared that the White Sox and Tigers would battle for the AL Central crown.

While Smith sniffed around the Padres camp for a possible trade for their closer Heath Bell, Gardy declared that the Twins would have a, “closer by committee… I think… no wait… I mean Jon Rauch will be our closer… for a while.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

There were a few final roster spots and pitching roles up for grabs as the Twins prepared to break camp and a couple of them would turn out to be critical to the team’s ultimate success.

Alexi Casilla

The last position-player spot was given to Alexi Casilla, over Matt Tolbert, largely because Casilla was out of minor league options and Tolbert wasn’t. Danny Valencia was given a long look in Ft. Myers but in the end it was felt he needed more time in AAA to work on his defense.

Francisco Liriano

As difficult as it may be to imagine now, Francisco Liriano ended Spring Training in a battle for the fifth spot in the Twins rotation. A fair number of people felt he couldn’t be relied upon to pitch deep in to games, but might make a good closer. Brian Duensing ultimately lost out to Liriano for that final rotation spot but made the team as the long relief arm in the bullpen.

I don’t know who made those final roster decisions… Ron Gardenhire, Bill Smith or some combination of the two… but those decisions would prove crucial to the Twins’ ultimate success. We’ll take a look at just how that happened in Part 2. – JC

Minnesota State Fair!

Hey folk, it’s that time of year again!  I thought I would make sure you knew where to go to get your baseball fix while doing the Fair thing.  The Twins and FSN have their little shindig set up on the South East corner of the fair by the Snelling entrance.  If I remember correctly, it’s a big tent on the East side of Judson between Underwood and Cooper.   How about a helpful Map

Of course they have tons of Twins gear and such that you can pick up.  They have official Minnesota Twins Baseball licensed merchandise plus an exhibit of Twins baseball memorabilia and interactive activities for children and adults.  They also have free stuff and prize giveaways.  At the very minimum you can get Twins bags and schedules for next year!  Here’s the Fair promotional guide that you can look through for deals – baseball and otherwise!

I will admit that I really did only the most basic of searching for this and while I tried to find out if there was a schedule of player appearances at the Twins site and they didn’t have any Fair related info for current players.  But here’s a link to the alumni players who are going to be there. 

I did at least grab the link to the daily schedules.  If you know what day you are going, you can check to see what’s going on that day.  Of course, I have gotten the word from TC Bear that he will be in the parade every day at 2 pm so if you haven’t gotten your Twins fix by that point in the day, you know where to go.

And just because I found it and couldn’t resist sharing, here’s a little insight from April this year into what some of our Minnesota boys think about all that food on a stick!

A kind concessionaire named Brandi looked at the menu behind her and summarized it thusly: “How much more Minnesota can you get? Everything on a stick!”

Such adventuring spirit hasn’t quite infiltrated the home team, which, during the yearly Minnesota State Fair, tends to find itself in pennant races. Finding a walleye-on-a-spike veteran was harrowing.

Manager Ron Gardenhire? Nope.

“I’ve seen my buddy Walleye walk with a stick because he’s so drunk,” he said.

Reliever Brian Duensing? Negative.

“I don’t know if I could trust it,” he said. “The stick scares me. If it’s one a plate, sure. I might try it. I’m sure it’s not bad.”

Second baseman Orlando Hudson? You can’t be serious.

“I ain’t eating no fish on no damn stick,” he said. “I eat bass, crappy, walleye. But not on no stick. That don’t sound right.”

Everything else was fine. “This is a great town,” Hudson said, and it got even better when the threat of baseball contracting the Twins forced the city’s people to save their team. They could’ve said no. They could’ve done a bootleg job. Instead, they’ve got this new jewel in the middle of their city, set up and finished with a spike.

You know, I really think it would be fun to walk around the Fair with a couple of these guys on their first time!

Twins History Lesson: August 16-22

Before we dig in to the events that transpired during the upcoming week in Twins history, I want to take a few moments to mention a bit more about one of the reference sources we use for this feature. We footnote three sources that we routinely check every week at the bottom of each Twins History Lesson post*.

One of those resources, however, warrants a little extra mention. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Twins Trivia site just provides a few obscure facts about our favorite team. There is so much more of interest to be found there. Want to know exactly which players have worn your favorite jersey number over the years? It’s there. Too young to remember what Metropolitan Stadium looked like, there are a bunch of pictures (including a link so some pictures of an abandoned “Met” that almost brought tears to my eyes). There are interviews with a boatload of former Twins, as well. And of course, there are all of the facts and figures you would expect from a “trivia” site. I highly recommend the site and you can always find the link in our Twins Blogroll list at the right.

Now, on to this week in Twins history…

Kicking off the week on August 16:

1975: You think having a multi-hit game is a big deal? On August 16, 1975, you needed at least two hits just to feel like you played a role at all in the Twins’ 9-1 win over Cleveland. The Twins set a MLB record with nine different hitters collecting at least two hits. Those hitters were Lyman Bostock, Dan Ford, Rod Carew, John Briggs, Tony Oliva, Eric Soderholm, Steve Braun, Jerry Terrell and Phil Roof.

Tom Kelly

1990: A lot has been made of Michael Cuddyer being moved around the field this season by manager Ron Gardenhire, but on this date in 1990, Tom Kelly took the title of “manager” to a whole new level during a game with the Indians. Kelly shifted Kirby Puckett from RF to SS.. to 3B… and finally to 2B while moving Al Newman from 3B to SS and back to 3B, all in the 8th inning alone.

R.A. Dickey is having a very nice season for the Mets this season after never quite having the sort of success with the Twins that the organization hoped he might in 2009. Reportedly, Ron Gardenhire had wanted a knuckleballer on the staff because he felt such a pitcher could be successful in the climate controlled Metrodome. Given Dickey’s performance for the Mariners against the Twins at the ‘Dome on August 17, 2008, it’s not real  clear what may have made Gardy draw that conclusion. On that date, Dickey tied a MLB record with four wild pitches in one inning. He could have broken the record if not for one additional pitch that found the backstop being ruled a passed ball charged to catcher Kenji Johjima.

August 18 has seen a “first” and a “last” of note over the years:

1966: It may not roll off the tongue as smoothly poetic as “Tinker to Evers to Chance”, but Rollins to Tovar to Killebrew made history on 8/18/66 when Rich, Cesar and Harmon turned the first triple play in Twins history during a game against the Angels at Met Stadium.

1986: Twenty years later, Hall-of-Famer-to-be Tom Seaver struck out 7 Twins in 8.2 innings in a Red Sox win over the Twins to earn his 311th, and final, career win.

Johan Santana

Tell me if this sounds at all familiar, Twins fans… a Twins pitcher walks off the mound during what could be a historic night with his team nursing a 1-0 lead. But having already thrown over 100 pitches, manager Ron Gardenhire puts team and the health of the pitcher ahead of “history” and lets the pitcher know he’ll be turning to the bullpen. Kevin Slowey on Sunday? Nope… on August 19, 2007, it was Johan Santana who had struck out 17 Rangers in 8 innings and was within 3 Ks of matching the MLB record of 20 in a game. There was no Jim Thome to give the Twins a cushion on that day, but Joe Nathan struck out 2 in the 9th to help set the Twins single game team record of 19 strikeouts and seal the 1-0 win. Santana gave up only two hits to the Rangers… both by Sammy Sosa.

Ken Landreaux was having a good season for the Twins in 1979 but when you’re the player a team gets back in a trade for a certain Hall of Famer like Rod Carew, living up to expectations is pretty much a lost cause. Nonetheless, On August 20, 1979, Landreaux came through with a very Carew-like performance as he ripped three extra base hits (double, triple, HR) and drove in six runs in a 10-5 win over the Red Sox.

The Beatles at Met Stadium (Photo by Sully)

Where were you on August 21, 1965? If you were at Metropolitan Stadium, you were among a packed house of screaming fans… but the Twins were nowhere to be seen. The Beatles were playing at the Met that night!

Our look back at August 22 goes back only two years to 2008. Rookie Carlos Gomez set a Twins rookie stolen base record by swiping his 27th base of the season, breaking a club record held at the time by Luis Rivas.

That’s enough for this week, I think. We’ll skip over a few August trades involving guys most of us have never heard of (sorry, Jackie Collum) or prefer to forget (that would be you, Joe Mays) as we anxiously await the inevitable demolishing of the White Sox remaining playoff hopes this week. Go Twins! – JC

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*We pull this information from a few different sources, including (but not necessarily limited to) Dave Wright’s excellent book, “162-0, The Greatest Wins!”, as well as some  internet sites like “Twins Trivia” and “National Pastime”.

First Rule of Leadership: Everything is Your Fault!

This is Part 2 of my essay (ok, yes, this part is long enough it might almost qualify as a novel) concerning the Twins’ need for Leadership and Accountability heading in to the last couple of months of the season. If you missed Part 1 and care to catch up with the rest of the class, you can find it here.

As was the case with Part 1, extra credit goes to the first person to correctly identify the movie from which the quote serving as this post’s Title is taken (no fair Googling!) – JC

UPDATE: No guesses on the movie quote providing this post’s title, but you can find it by clicking here.

When last we left off, I was bemoaning the fact that we have no larger-than-life John Wayne type figure to step up and assure all of Twins Territory that everything is under control… that all this whining and yelling and cursing and otherwise uncivilized behavior in Twinsville (especially the blogdom neighborhood) needs to cease.

To me, that’s a problem that goes well beyond keeping us blogheads civil. It goes to the heart of the problems on the field. It appears to me that this team lacks leadership. I don’t know who, if anyone, are the “clubhouse leaders” on this team, but I do know that nobody in this organization is out front projecting to the public that he’s got a handle on things and that while there may be challenges right now, they are being addressed.

It’s called leadership and virtually every successful organization has it.

It doesn’t have to just come from the CEO. In fact, it’s better if it is found at various levels of the organization. But you need people who step up and say, in words and deeds, “don’t worry about it, I’ve got this,” then go out and lead the effort to solve the problem.

To my mind, there appears to be a huge leadership void in the Twins organization, at least where actual baseball matters are concerned. (Clearly Target Field is evidence that there are people in other areas of the organization that can get the job done.)

So let’s talk accountability. I’m calling out the following people specifically. These people need to step up and do their jobs or the Twins need to find someone else who can.

Bill Smith had a nice offseason. Yes, he had the benefit of increased revenue projections that no Twins GM has had in the past so he had more freedom to sign players like Pavano, Hudson and Thome. He ended up assembling a roster that looked better on paper than all but a couple of teams in the American League.

But, as the Yankees have often demonstrated, assembling a team that looks good on paper before Spring Training opens is only half the job of a GM. Every team inevitably finds itself with new needs at mid season and teams that are willing and able to address those needs are the teams that will be playing ball in October. Last year, Smith did a decent job of picking up a few key additions on the cheap when he added Orlando Cabrera, Ron Mahay and Jon Rauch.

I know the Twins keep their mouths shut when it comes to deals they are considering and that’s fine. But the public perception is that Smith is 0 for 1 so far in terms of making moves that would help set the Twins back on course to the postseason, since he couldn’t close a deal with the Mariners for Cliff Lee.

Granted, his job won’t be easy. Half of Twins fans don’t want to see him overpay for a 2-3 month rental. But Smith’s options may be limited if he’s trying to acquire players that have contracts extending beyond the end of this season. His allowable 2011 payroll is pretty much spoken for already thanks to arbitration raises due several players next year and contract extensions given to a number of others, in particular the extra $10 million or so going to Joe Mauer.

It’s time for Bill Smith to step up and declare what direction he is going to take this team’s roster. Show some leadership and take accountability for the decisions you make, Bill.

Which segues nicely to Joe Mauer. It’s time to grow up, Joe. It’s time to make this team yours. You’re going to be claiming somwhere between 20-25% of the team’s Major League payroll. You may not be totally comfortable with the role, but that kind of money brings with it some responsibility that goes beyond just hitting for a respectable average and deciding whether your pitcher should throw a two-seamer or a slider.

I sense that Mauer is trying to “lead by example”, rather than filling a more traditional leadership role. It’s possible that he feels “playing hurt” right now is how he’s most comfortable displaying leadership. But we’ve gotten through over half a season now and his performance is not at the level a team with championship asperations needs to get out of its #3 hitter.

Joe, if you are not hurt, you need to step up and do your job (and that dinger last night against the Orioles was a nice start). If you ARE hurt, step up and tell Ron Gardenhire that you can not currently perform at the necessary level. Get rest if that’s what’s needed. If rest won’t fix your problem, then you and your manager need to conclude that it’s best for the team for you to be dropped in the order to a spot more in line with your current performance.

Which conveniently brings us to you, Ron Gardenhire. There’s a reason they call the guy in charge of a professional baseball team on the field a “manager” instead of a “head coach”, like they do in high school and college. It’s because “managing” is at the top of his responsibilities.

If I hear, “Gardy isn’t responsible because he’s not the one pitching/hitting/fielding,” one more time, I’ll pull out what limited amount of hair I still have. I manage a staff of people approximately the same size as a Major League roster. I didn’t hire all of these people personally, but I am responsible for assuring that they perform as a group at or above expected levels. If my staff is not performing well, it reflects on my performance as a manager.

The question is whether this roster, as currently constituted, will perform at sufficient levels to meet everyone’s high expectations. Good managers, in baseball as in business, sometimes lose their effectiveness with a particular “staff”.  Good managers can make changes to their approach to bring improvements to the performance of the charges under them. Can Gardy change his approach to managing to improve his team’s performance?

When performance is substandard, an organization can do one of two things… lower expectations to align with actual performance or make changes to try to improve performance to expected levels. Not many successful organizations choose the former. So let’s assume the Twins want to actually improve their performance. There are a few changes that need to be made.

  • Players need to play better. People like Mauer and Scott Baker, the guys who have been given job security that indicates they are expected to be the nucleus of the team for years to come, need to show some leadership skills AND improve their own personal performance levels.
  • The Manager needs to change his management approach and find a way to motivate or otherwise improve the performance of players who are not playing well.
  • The GM needs to decide what direction this team is going to take the rest of this year and in 2011 and 2012, take ownership of that decision and communicate it, then set a course to be successful over whatever timeline he deterimines is appropriate.

Insanity, they say, is defined as doing the same things the same ways and expecting different results. Absent a demonstration of leadership by some of these people and the necessary changes being made by them, it’s insane for any of us to expect this team to have better results the rest of the season than they have had so far.

People making $40,000 a year are held accountable by those who pay their salaries for performing up to reasonable expectations. It is not unreasonable to expect those making exponentially more money to be held accountable for doing the same thing. – JC